The Biblical Basis for Family Worship (Part 1)

In the previous essay, we defined family worship as “the occasion in which the members of a given family gather together in order to participate in special acts of worship, such as the singing of praise, the reading and hearing of Scripture, and the offering of prayer to God.” In this segment of our study, we’ll attempt to provide some biblical support for the practice of family worship.

We must acknowledge at the outset that there is no single proof text which explicitly commands family worship as I have defined it. J. A. Alexander seems to recognize this point as well.

There are some duties so plain, that they are rather assumed, than commanded, in the word of God; and the number of such is greater than might be supposed on a superficial examination… . We are not to wonder, therefore, if we find, even in the New Testament, no separate and explicit injunction to worship God in the family.1

Nevertheless, Alexander, and the Puritans before him, did not hesitate to represent family worship as a duty warranted by Scripture. To support their position, they usually draw inferences from several Old and New Testament passages that provide warrant for something like the practice of family worship. While I don’t expect any one of these passages to provide definitive support for family worship (as we’ve defined it above), I do hope that their cumulative implications will provide adequate grounds for the practice.

Noah and the Family Altar

Immediately after the animals and his family left the ark, we read in Genesis 8:20:

Then Noah built an altar to the LORD, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. (Gen. 8:20)

Altars and offerings were common features of Old Testament worship. We can trace their existence all the way back to the time of Adam and Eve, just subsequent to the fall. Because of sin, man had to approach God by means of an altar. Accordingly, we find Cain and Abel bringing to God offerings or tribute at an appointed time of worship (Gen. 4:3-5a). It shouldn’t surprise us, then, to find the righteous man, Noah, building an altar and offering sacrifice. This is what we would expect. As commentators generally agree, Noah offered these sacrifices not merely for himself but on behalf of his entire family. In other words, as the head of his home, Noah was, as it were, something like the family priest. And so, we have here an early allusion to a special act of worship that took place within the context of a family unit.

Job, the Family Priest

In this passage, we’re told in more explicit terms that Job offered sacrifices on behalf of his family:

Job’s] sons used to go and hold a feast in the house of each one on his day, and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. When the days of feasting had completed their cycle, Job would send and consecrate them, rising up early in the morning and offering burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said, “Perhaps my sons have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.” Thus Job did continually. (Job 1:4-5)

Commenting on this passage, John Hartley observes:

A] noble characteristic of Job portrayed in this picture is his fervent spiritual leadership as head of his family…. It is clear that Job took his role as the family’s priest very seriously, and this ritual of sacrifice was an expression of the entire family’s contrite attitude toward God.  As priest of his family he interceded for each member lest any thought disrupt their relationship with God.2

As a “righteous man,” Job felt the obligation to act as a priest and to offer sacrifices on behalf of each of his children. The text indicates that his children were present—“Job would send and consecrate them.”  And note that family worship for Job was not an occasional practice.  The text underscores the regularity of Job’s family worship when it says, “Thus Job did continually” (v. 5).

At this point in redemptive history, there was no OT theocracy or NT church. The first worshiping community was the family, and the first “corporate worship” was family worship. This may be one reason why the Puritans often likened the family to a church. Richard Baxter said, “A Christian family … is a church … a society of Christians combined for the better worshipping and serving God.”3 William Perkins agreed, arguing, “These families wherein this service of God is performed are, as it were, little churches, yea even a kind of Paradise upon earth.”4 Describing his fellow Puritans, John Geree wrote, “His family he endeavored to make a Church, both in regard of persons and exercises, admitting none into it but such as feared God; and laboring that those that were born in it, might be born again to God.”5

Can it be said that our house is like a church? Do we labor to make our household like a society of believers? If the Bible compares the church to a family (1 Tim. 3:15), can we not compare (by way of analogy) the family to a church, a place where family members meet to worship the true God?

Abraham Commanding his Children

Like Noah and Job, we find Abraham building altars and offering sacrifices unto the LORD (12:7; 13:4, 18). He was obviously a man who believed and worshipped the one true God. It wouldn’t be wrong for us to assume that Abraham’s made sure his family was present when such worship was offered. There are two passages that seem to teach that Abraham even demanded true worship from his household. The first of these passages is found in 17:23-27.  Abraham has just received a divine command to circumcise himself and his entire household.

Then Abraham took Ishmael his son, and all the servants who were born in his house and all who were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s household, and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the very same day, as God had said to him. Now Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. In the very same day Abraham was circumcised, and Ishmael his son. All the men of his household, who were born in the house or bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him. (Gen. 17:23-27)

Here we have the beginnings of a community of people who worship the one true God. All males who would be identified with that community and who would worship with that community had to be circumcised. Like animal sacrifices, circumcision became an essential element of OT religious life. What I’d like to point out for our purposes is that this religious rite took place within the context of a family household. And Abraham, as the head of that household, took the responsibility to insure that his entire household (more precisely, all the males) participated in this religious act of obedience.

I grant that circumcision was a unique, once-for-all ordinance, like baptism. Certainly, I am not suggesting that fathers start administering circumcision or baptism or the Lord’s Supper in their homes. The point I want to underscore is simply this: Abraham as the head of his household insured that the true religion was practiced, at least outwardly, in his home. And I don’t believe it would be wrong to apply this principle to the practice of family worship. One of the ways we insure that true religion is practiced in our home is by calling the entire family together to worship God.

Consider the comment found in the side margin of the Geneva Bible. The Geneva Bible was an annotated English version that was translated in Geneva during the Reformation, and it was widely used by the English Puritans because of its Calvinistic notes. The marginal note on our passage reads as follows: “Masters in their houses ought to be as preachers to their families, that from the highest to the lowest they may obey the will of God.” Obviously, the editor saw some connection between this passage and family worship.

Lest we think he goes too far in drawing that application, let’s turn to the second passage, which is located in the next chapter, 18:16-19:

Then the men rose up from there, and looked down toward Sodom; and Abraham was walking with them to send them off. The LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation, and in him all the nations of the earth will be blessed? For I have chosen him, so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him.” (Gen. 18:16-19)

God didn’t choose Abraham so that he alone would worship and serve the Lord. God chose Abraham so that Abraham would lead his entire household into the worship and service of the one true God. Abraham’s election resulted in a God-given stewardship, which entailed the following:

  • Abraham would need to know the “ways of the Lord,” and he would need to consistently walk in those ways.
  • Abraham would need to teach his household about “the ways of the Lord.” In the context, “the ways of the Lord” would include his merciful, yet just dealings with Sodom and Gomorrah.
  • Abraham would also teach his household about the promises of the Lord—that the Lord brings blessing upon those who obey him.
  • Abraham would not merely inform, but would also “command” his household—he would apply revealed to truth to their conscience.

Christian parent, why has God chosen you? You believe in the doctrine of election, don’t you? You believe that God chose you from before the foundation of the world to be His child. Do you realize that He chose you for another reason as well? Do you realize that your election in grace implies a God-given stewardship? God has chosen you so that you might instruct and exhort your children and your household to “keep the ways of the Lord.”

Notes

1 Thoughts on Family Worship, p. 9-10.

2 The Book of Job in NICOT, pp. 69-70.

3 Cited in Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints, p. 84.

4 Ibid., 84-85.

5 Cited in J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness, p. 270.

Bob Gonzales bio


Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological ReviewThe Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.

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